BRADENTON – Manatee County commissioners have approved removing 97 more Australian pines from the south Coquina Beach parking lot, bringing the total so far to 103, including six already removed earlier this month.
The approved phase one tree removals are part of the county’s two-phase Coquina Beach stormwater and drainage improvement project. The $3.1 million first phase plan includes paving all the unpaved access roads and parking areas in the south parking lots with pervious concrete, which will allow rainwater to drain through it and into an underground filtration system that discharges into Sarasota Bay and/or Longboat Pass.
The project also includes the construction of a Florida Department of Transportation-funded sidewalk along the west side of Gulf Drive.
Commissioners Vanessa Baugh, Steve Jonsson and Misty Servia supported Commissioner Priscilla Trace’s motion to remove the trees at the Tuesday, June 18 commission meeting. At-large commissioners Betsy Benac and Carol Whitmore opposed the decision. Commissioner Reggie Bellamy was not present.
The adopted motion approves the removal of all 103 non-native Australian pines slated for removal in phase one and calls for their replacement with another unspecified type of tree. At Servia’s request, the amended motion includes a request for the creation of a landscaping plan as soon as possible.
The fates of approximately 130 more Australian pines slated for removal in phase two have not yet been determined. The adopted motion calls for the commission to reevaluate the phase two plans to determine if the project is extended to the center and northern parking lots, and if so, how many more trees will be removed.
When making her motion, Trace said she doubted the commission would approve phase two.
The commission chose not to pursue an alternative plan that would have saved approximately 50 trees scheduled for phase one removal.
Whitmore, the commission’s only Island resident, made a motion to terminate the project. Her motion died without a second from another commissioner.
“Please listen to our community’s pleas – from the Island all the way out to Lakewood Ranch – to not change the character of our beaches,” Whitmore said.
The meeting packet included 1,010 petition signatures that local Realtor Mike Norman and others collected in an attempt to save the trees.
“We did not know about the trees. It was never mentioned,” Whitmore said. “I respectfully ask that you find out from our legal counsel what it’s going to cost to cancel this contract.”
Benac then said, “I remember the workshop when we talked about pervious pavement. I honestly don’t remember voting to go forward with the project. I don’t know that we’ve ever seen a site plan that shows what’s happening at this site.
“Are we paving the whole thing? It’s not just about the trees. I’m concerned we’re going to have real pushback from people that are going to be horrified by us creating a Siesta Key-type parking lot,” Benac said.
“Yes, we’re proposing to pave every bit of parking area over time,” Butzow confirmed.
“If I had my way, I’d get rid of all the Australian pines,” Trace said, noting the commission approved an unrelated $300,000 three-year expenditure for exotic plant removals earlier that day.
“I don’t think we’re really changing the feel for that beach. I think they need to go, and we need to replant them with better shade trees,” Jonsson said.
Newly-confirmed Public Works Director Chad Butzow, Project Manager Michael Sturm and Parks and Grounds Division Manager Carmine DeMilio explained the project in detail before the commissioners voted.
“This is a stormwater drainage project that happens to include a parking lot because the drainage system is the parking lot,” Butzow said of the pervious concrete.
DeMilio said the project will address flooding issues that sometimes cause the parking lots to be closed.
The county spends $30,000 annually grading the unpaved surfaces to alleviate potholes, he said, adding that county staff spends significant time picking up fallen branches. He shared a photo of an Australian pine branch that recently landed on a parked vehicle.
Sturm said a certified arborist recommended the tree removals because the excavation for the paving would damage the trees’ shallow root systems. Sturm said raising the surfaces to be paved was discussed, but the arborist said burying the roots under 10 inches of topsoil would kill the pines.
Sturm said the arborist recently proposed an alternative that could save approximately 50 phase one pines designated for removal.
“He said I probably should have told you this in the beginning. What we can do is trim some roots and prune the tops so they’re not susceptible to the wind. It’ll take them about a year to recover, but in that time the roots will grow back and the trees will re-foliate, ” Sturm said.
“We were ill-prepared and we were well into the project when we discovered the trees were in harm’s way.” – Chad Butzow, Manatee County Public Works Director
Butzow said staff did not recommend the pruning option, but it could be done. The commission took no action on that option.
Butzow said the phase two plans call for the removal of 126 to 129 additional Australian pines, which would leave 76 percent of the existing pines still standing.
“Nothing’s being touched that is water-side of the walking trail,” Butzow said.
Sturm said phase two design revisions could save 80-90 percent of those trees: “It will take a little more work, but we can save the trees if that’s what you want to do.”
Butzow said the original plans only called for the removal of the 13 trees in direct conflict with the paving plans and that’s how the project was presented during a previous commission work session.
“We definitely missed on that one. We were ill-prepared and we were well into the project when we discovered the trees were in harm’s way,” Butzow admitted.
Butzow said the omission of a landscaping plan was also an error on his part.
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